Watch out on welfareYesterday’s referendum on free school lunches in Seoul was voided because the voter turnout fell short of the required 33.3 percent. Even though Seoul has lost a chance to confirm what its citizens really feel about the issue, such a result carries a bigger weight as it has a political meaning way beyond the legal formality. Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon staked his post on the referendum, and the ruling Grand National Party supported him. Therefore, the result shows that both the GNP and Oh failed to make a convincing case for the values they fervently advocate.
Politicians should react wisely to the referendum’s result. It is inevitable that the Seoul Metropolitan Government will continue its policy to support the universal free school lunch program for elementary, middle and high schools in the capital - as argued by the Democratic Party-controlled Seoul city council - in the future.
The ruling and opposition parties should now cooperate on how to fund the program. And a new mayoral election should be held as Oh has announced he would resign if the turnout was below 33.3 percent.
The referendum left many problems to reflect on. Previous referenda were successfully conducted with residents actively participating and fully reflecting their views on various issues. This time, however, opposition parties and some liberal civic groups went so far as to launch a campaign urging citizens not to vote, which is a threat to democracy.
The referendum also demonstrates a colossal lack of political leadership. A referendum is the last means to resort to when representative democracy is not working. Political leadership based on dialogue and compromise is desperately needed.
Now the welfare debate may pick up in our society. Other local governments will likely follow the Seoul model to expand free lunches at their schools, not to mention free child care, education, medical services and discounted college tuitions.
Universal free school meals in Seoul should not be interpreted as an indiscriminate expansion of welfare because welfare is feasible only with fiscal balance. Yesterday, Moody’s downgraded Japan’s sovereign credit rating because of its mounting fiscal deficits. Fiscal irresponsibility has already lowered the U.S. credit rating and is on the verge of swallowing up southern Europe. To avoid this dismal path, the government must not give up the pivotal principle of fiscal balance.